“Lewisham to Stratford, one straight line, change at Canary Wharf, repeat in reverse/
Monday to Friday, come rain or shine, morning and then evening. An unending curse.”
I stared at the short little poem I had written, then folded up the sheet of paper and stuffed it back inside my pocketbook. The two lines had simply strolled into my mind as I’d stood at the platform, and I’d taken them down right then and there. But the fun I’d hoped to get from writing amusing couplets had worn off quicker than I’d imagined, and my brain was becoming numb. Again.
I returned my attention back outside the window. The sky was grey. The buildings were grey. My fellow commuters’ faces were a shade duller than cardboard. Everything seemed to blend together into this mishmash of grey matter that looked back at you, blank and vacant. Even in these late hours, when twilight descended on the city, trying to summon its hidden vibrancy, greyness — that vampire of the colours — seemed to sneak into everything first and suck out all signs of life. It had been embedded into the city and now lurked in every corner. In other words, it was business as usual here in London.
Business as usual meant that we all accepted our fate as commuters. We were all accustomed to the cycle: get up, take a bus or the Tube to work, and repeat. Day after day, week after week. But this cycle poisoned the brain from within. I would have barely sunk into a seat on the DLR before feeling the energy just draining from me. My mind might make a few feeble grabs at the outside world, but sooner or later I had to face up to the facts: the train ride was just the prologue and the epilogue to another day of typing out endless facts and figures, letters and numbers that meant nothing to me.
Occasionally I’d try to compose myself little literary diversions — maybe a couplet here, an insulting story there, a rude pun about a random passenger I’d seen. It was cold comfort, but they were the only things that saved my brain from coming to a complete standstill.
The train screeched to a halt, and I reflexively looked up to see which station we were now stuck in. My head rammed against something soft and cushiony in the middle, yet framed by something hard and sharp. I felt a hollow object slamming together above me, while another sailed downwards and clattered onto my toes. A half-muttered, half-shouted “OW” came distantly through my ears, along with a few scattered giggles.
It took me a while to realize that I had headbutted somebody on the cheek.
I glanced furtively at my victim, who now sat next to me cradling his jaw and glaring at me with a stung look on his face. I met his gaze and pretended to nurse my head. It would only be a matter of time before he admitted defeat. Even in the gloom of the cramped train, I could now see his face blushing pink. I felt a diabolical rush of pleasure despite myself, tried in vain to keep my smile in check. A refreshing bit of colour from this accident.
I glanced at the notebook that had fallen onto my feet. It was a plain, brown notebook, heavily battered with age and obviously quite well-used. My neighbour and I stared at it. Then at each other. The same arguments playing out through our minds:
“You pick it up.”
“No, YOU do that.”
“YOU rammed me in the jaw.”
“Well, YOU got in the way first.”
The notebook weighed down on my toes, getting heavier every second, like it was trying to avenge its master. It was me who eventually gave in and reached down, a fraction of a moment before he also reached for it. Our hands tugged at the ends of the notebook in unison, and I felt the force of his pull shoot right between the pages and into my arm. Every little muscle inside jumped, and I froze right on the spot.
We stared right into each other’s eyes. He had huge spectacles on, which magnified his eyes, as round as dinner plates, looking as if they’d jump out of their sockets any moment.
“This train is for… Canary Wharf. The next stop is… Bow Church,” announced a cool, metallic voice over our shoulders. It sounded almost sardonic.
He looked away first. I shook my head to clear my thoughts, dusted off the notebook and extended it to him. He half-tugged, half-snatched the notebook back, muttering “sorry” under his breath and looked back out of the window. He flipped his notebook open and began to scribble.
Now, I knew it was rude to stare. It’s basically a cardinal sin to look at anything else that breathes air on the Tube. And yet this guy — I couldn’t help studying him while he was working. It was occasional little glimpses at first, but as the stops crawled by, I found myself forgetting to look away. This one radiated “nerd” in every sense of the word. He had glasses that covered half his face, and his hair was Paul McCartney circa 1967. Despite the sweltering heat outside, he was still wearing trousers and a hoodie. He had a hungry, almost furious look in his eyes as he scribbled, the sleeves of his jacket shoved up hastily and beads of sweat forming on his brow.
I felt a little excited merely from WATCHING him, for heaven’s sake. And then I glanced at the pages of the notebook.
“Oh my… GOSH,” I breathed, all high-pitched.
It was a drawing of Canary Wharf station, but it was far from just another artist’s impression. It was an exact replica on paper, from its glass roof down to the miniscule display boards, from the two structures flanking the sides to the central red arches uniting them all. The DLR train just leaving the station looked as if it would spring out any second into the next page, where mathematical symbols, equations and statistics were spattered all over the paper, a storm of numbers that nobody could possibly decipher.
The pen had stopped moving on the page. I looked up, saw him staring right back at me. He looked indignant, yet underneath that I felt something else stirring. Surprise… no, pride. “What are you looking at?”
“Oh, no, I’m just…” I took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry for hitting you in the cheek…”
“No no no no no, it’s me, I keep on… shoving my head in other people’s faces just to see outside… it’s not the first time that’s happened.” He sighed.
“Well I suppose with all those drawings you do have to look out a lot…”
He blushed for the second time in about three minutes. “Oh, these? The drawings are just… a little something I do on the train for fun.”
“But… how are they so detailed? You can’t possibly be reconstructing all of this from memory!”
“That’s what the statistics here are for,” he beamed, suddenly brimming with confidence and jabbing at the cluster of numbers, “They’re measurements of all the nooks and crannies of the platforms, and they help me remember every part of the station…”
“You have figures for EVERY PART of the station? What on Earth? How’d you do that? And you’re able to create that picture from those numbers ONLY?! That’s…” I stopped to draw breath. “That’s absolutely crazy.”
“Oh, I’m just good at guessing distances.” I opened my mouth — this was unbelievable — but he continued, oblivious. “As for the drawings… I’m not interested in them, actually. I’m interested in the numbers that make up the station, and how it all works together to form one of the most beautiful stations on the network. The stats don’t exist for the drawing, it’s the drawing that compliments the numbers here.” His voice had gotten faster as he spoke, the intensity becoming more and more obvious. He was totally a geek.
“That’s pretty cool… but it’s not something I’d do in my spare time. I mean, why would you want to know so much about the dimensions of such a place?”
He reddened yet again. “That’s not… it’s just something I do for fun, okay? It passes the time, and…” He looked as if he wanted to continue, but then he just sighed. “It passes the time a lot.”
“Okay, well, and you’re obviously good at numbers, so maybe you like them.” I shrugged and blew my cheeks out. “Anyway, what’s your name?”
“Oh, er… I’m Liam.” He had a stutter. I’d only just noticed it.
“Ooh, that’s a nice name… does anyone ever…”
“Oh no, for the love of God, PLEASE don’t call me Izzy.”
His toes shifted just a tiny bit. “Why not? Isn’t it… you know… just a name?”
“This argument again? It’s not JUST a name, it’s a hollow reflection of who I am! You can’t bring out the full me just by calling me ‘Izzy’. I know that it’s the shorter form and it’s easier to say, but it takes away the roots and the meaning of the entire name. So call me Isabelle or nothing at all.”
“Okay, okay… I’ve got the message,” Liam said. I couldn’t help but notice that his eyes were blinking with alarming intensity. “It’s just that… well it’s just, you know…”
“It’s not a vanity thing,” I blurted. “It’s just that people throw words around like they don’t mean anything, but no, words HAVE MEANINGS. The name ‘Isabelle’ has so many layers of meaning. ‘Izzy’ is an empty shell. And I hate it when people call me by THAT name, it’s like they’re ignoring so much of my… identity…”
My newfound fervour caught me off guard, and I gulped. I didn’t mind being caught lying. It was more the fact that I’d said anything about it at all. People always seemed to ignore me when I told them that, rolling their eyes and just acquiescing without further comment. And yet, there was something in the air, a sense of intrigue, that enchanted me, coaxed my passions out.
Liam raised his eyebrows. “Why did I even… bother trying to explain that all to you… you don’t like numbers, do you, Isabelle?”
“Well, not exactly, but…” Why was my tongue failing me only now, when I most needed to deal out the pacifying lies? “It’s just that… we all have our interests. You do your maths, and I write my short pieces and poems. It’s all cool.”
His shoulders sagged just a little. “Oh, you write short stories, huh.” He paused for a while, looking forward distractedly. “Why on Earth?” he sighed.
I snorted. “Why? My job’s boring. The train ride’s boring. The world around me is boring as hell. It’s my way of staying alive.” I stopped to breathe. No use getting this animated. “Why are you grimacing like that?”
“Well, it’s just that… I’ve never really been a big fan of wordy stuff… I slept through most of the English classes at school, so you could drop references all day and I… wouldn’t be any wiser. Besides… I’m pretty sure I could never get into literature, it really doesn’t speak to me and it’s so lifeless and…”
“Oh no. No you don’t,” I said, half rising from my seat. “You are not telling me that, okay? Words and literature are not LIFELESS. They are the ONLY thing that make this world worth living in.” I was close to shouting by now, and my skin burnt with the passion of a hundred suns. “Like… take Canary Wharf. You’ve been there. I’ve been there. And you know what, you can’t describe it with a bunch of dead numbers! You only make it even more boring and soulless and crappy than it already is and those are the last things that I want in my life, you know that? Those numbers you give me? I’m already drowning in them every day, and I want to feel, for just one second, that there’s even a HINT of life in this purgatory, and it is NEVER going to shine through with the stupid numbers. And imagination? What about the world of imagination? No matter where you go with numbers, you’re so firmly grounded and life just hits back at you whenever you try to make sense of them. It’s the words of fantasy that get me out of this train and out of this tedium and give me a LIFELINE from this… fricking numbness! You think that you can offer me that with just dead statistics? That is simply NOT TRUE.”
I was aware of how everyone on the train was looking at me weird, but I couldn’t care less. I hadn’t felt so strongly about something for a very long time. Not since I defended my undergrad thesis on Joan Lindsay with a vigour that shocked absolutely everyone and earned me my first standing ovation. I couldn’t even muster up the courage to ask for directions when I was lost. But this was different.
There was a long quiet as I stopped to breathe. Liam looked at me, biting his lips, and I could see the numbers in his head piling up in a horrendous car crash, trying to make a comeback. I turned my head around, trying to calm myself, all the while listening to the roar of the crowd, jostling to board and alight at yet another station. “This is… Poplar,” came that voice from over the speakers again.
“You know, Isabelle…” Liam’s voice came over my shoulder.
“What.” I kept my eyes fixed outside.
“It’s not just you. That’s how life goes for me too. I don’t like words, but it’s not… it’s just that I get so frustrated when I see all the needless and fancy words clogging up my life. The numbers and the drawings provide me with a lifeline too, they help to clear my mind when I’m going back home after a long day, cooped up with people around me typing up reports and letters.”
“Join the club,” I said. It was getting hard to not look at him.
“So I get what you say… and yeah, I sometimes think it is awesome, what you writers…”
“Wordsmiths,” I interrupted him. Again, I didn’t know why I liked that word better. I just did.
“Okay, wordsmiths, then… it’s impressive, what you can do with words. It’s just that… it’s hard to wrap my head round it sometimes.”
I turned back to him, gave him a slight smile. “You’re a cute one.” I sighed. “It’s just… sometimes it’s hard to get people to listen when I talk about the power of words. Just don’t diss it, okay? Because I’d take them over numbers, any day. I’d fight anybody on this. Even you,” I couldn’t help but chuckle.
He narrowed his eyes, and a smile crept over his face. “Really?”
Heaven knows what was going on inside that brain of his. I rested my head on my shoulders and looked at him. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking how to prove you wrong.”
“Oh don’t bother, I’ve had this…”
“Oh come ON Isabelle! Give me a few minutes to just demonstrate that numbers can be beautiful, even more awesome than words themselves. Maybe words are as powerful as you say, maybe in time I’ll come to see why you love them as much as you do. But I am going to prove to you that those… those cloudy symbols that you call ‘dead statistics’, they can shine just as bright as your words. And…” He had sat up straighter, seemed to have grown taller. He was talking with a newfound confidence, a world away from his unsure stammering, from the Liam I had met and come to know in the past thirteen minutes. “Oh sod it, I’m going to prove it to you this very night. Under… under THIS. Under the majestic canopy of Canary Wharf.”
Of course, I’d seen this answer coming, but that didn’t stop my brain from abandoning the controls and leaving my heart to take the wheel.
“Why me?” It came out quieter than I’d hoped for it to be.
“Damn it, Isabelle. What do you think?” he said, looking forward into the night, ruffling his hair. “I’ve never seen somebody so intense about words. Nobody gets so passionate about these things anymore. But here you are, fighting to the last ditch over language. And I haven’t felt this for a long time, but just now? What you did? I feel like defending my choices again.”
“The next stop is… Canary Wharf, where this train terminates,” came that artificial voice over the speakers again.
He looked at me squarely in the eye. “Give me just one chance, Isabelle. That’s all I ask.”
I turned and gazed outside. Night had descended quick on London tonight. Already the sky was teetering on the edge of deep, empty blackness. The buildings all cast shadows on the tracks, the lights all seeming weak and faint, ready to give up its glow at any time. We seemed to be riding straight into a black hole.
Never had I met someone so passionate about numbers to match my own love. People say that when love comes calling, the possibilities open up before you. But right now, I could only picture one road ahead — and I wasn’t sure. I already knew that he would never come round to fully like words, just as I would never find myself fully liking numbers. I could still taste the acidity from my outburst, could see from far away all the disagreements we could have, intellectual and beyond. We’d always be in opposition, locked in eternal struggles…
And yet his offer was so tantalising, so irresistible. Even as I watched, amongst all the greyscale bits, I could see splashes of colour here and there. The yellowish wash of the train’s headlights, the pale glow of the lamps at Canary Wharf station. Even the redness of the canopy above the platforms, straddling the twin colonnades of One Canada Square, seemed a little richer than I’d ever remembered.
Yes, we could never see eye to eye. And why would we need to? The passions we had were enough to spend an eternity, and here was somebody who really understood it. And for me, that was more than enough. I didn’t know what lay ahead. But as we rode through the arches and into the glass dome of One Canada Square, I only knew that I couldn’t resist leaping into it.
“Only if you let me try the reverse on you, Liam, because I am definitely NOT going down without a fight.” I could feel a smile creeping up my face. I was so ready for this.
And from the joy twinkling in his amber eyes, I knew that he was all in for it too.
The doors opened, and we stepped off together onto the platform.
Postscript: This was a piece that I originally published (i.e. asked people to read) in July 2017, when I was a little worried about how little I was writing and wanted to write something just because I was really feeling like it. I dashed off most of it in a week, then hid it because I was seriously thinking of submitting it to some publications.
In any case, I rewrote it for a short story competition back in April this year (of course it got rejected — I’m still learning my craft) and I also rewrote it this week for final publishing on this blog. I’m still very proud of this work, even so many months on, but I feel I’ve done the best I can with this, and with subsequent maturities in my mind and my writing style, it’s time to move on. (I might revisit Liam and Isabelle again sometime, though…)
One final thing: this story is actually the basis for my 2017 APC script, although the two stories are completely different. I just like the idea of two lovers saving each other with the insights they have… it’s my idea (and let’s make that clear, it’s just an idea) of what makes a relationship tick. Any interested people might like to take a look at the script and compare the two — the similarities might be a lot more than first meets the eye. Thanks for reading, and I’ll try to come up with a brand new story soon!
And yes, that picture is mine. Ten months after being retired, my iPhone 4 still shines.